Front Porches, Field Peas, and Soap Operas

As librarians in Tupelo, a colleague and I were in charge of taking books to those who couldn’t come to us. Every Wednesday we’d load up our trusty little station wagon and drive around the city dropping off new checkouts and picking up returns. Our main destinations were nursing homes, and they were all, without exception, far from the dismal environments some people might imagine. As a matter of fact, those under care were often robust enough to elbow a neighbor out of the way to get the best Cartlands, Christies or L’Amours, not to mention the latest John Grisham. During one of these feeding frenzies, a blue stocking with pink hair sniffed and said to me, “They shouldn’t have been taught how to read in the first place.”

My partner Beverly, a seasoned veteran, rarely instructed me on nuances, so the assignment was full of pleasant surprises and lessons. We often picked up returns at the nurses’ stations, which are always a nexus of activity. I remember once early on reaching a station just as a produce man was dropping off three bushels of unshelled peas. Being a reformed kitchen grunt myself, I expected some surly person to appear, haul them in the back and begin the tedium of shelling them, so I was astounded when at least a dozen ladies came out of the TV room, ripped a pea sack open in seconds, filled up their colanders and retreated—talking up a storm—back into the TV room. I was trying to take it all in while Bev started packing up the returned books. Finally I tapped her on the shoulder and asked, “Bev, are they in there shelling peas?”

She looked over at the TV room door and said, “Oh, yes. They love watching soap operas and shelling peas.” Sure enough, a squadron of ladies had settled into their seats with peas and bowls in their laps and paper sacks on the floor at their sides. They didn’t even look at the peas as they shelled them; their eyes were glued to the drama unfolding before them. The nurse on duty told me that the shelled peas were collected before dinner (I had a vision of some old lady trying to stash HER colander of peas in a bottom drawer), bagged and kept in the refrigerator until cooked or offered to visitors, but “sometimes there’s so much in there, we just end up taking some home to keep them from being wasted.”

Bill Neale suspected that the Lord invented porches and television to make pea-shelling easier. My mother Barbara, as a young bride, was out on her porch one afternoon sweeping when she saw her husband’s Aunt Bess walking down the road with a sack and crying her eyes out, going to her sister Ethel’s, who was Barbara’s mother-in-law. Not being one to impose (at that point), mother assumed the worst and started cooking. After about an hour, with two casseroles and a cake in the oven, she called up Daddy and said, “Jess, your Aunt Bess just went over to Ethel’s just bawling her eyes out. I think Uncle Ed’s finally died.”

So Daddy ran up to Ethel’s house, assessed the situation, came out sweating and said: “Barbara, Ed didn’t die, Bess is just all wrung out over some soap character dying—her and Momma both.” Then Daddy handed her a bag of shelled peas. “Here,” he said. “I told them to come over for dinner tonight. You need to start watching ‘Days of Our Lives.’”

My Father

Jesse L. Yancy, Jr. was an attorney, politician, and humanitarian who served the people of Bruce, Calhoun County and Mississippi from 1956 until his death in 1970.

Born in Springville, Mississippi in 1926, Yancy moved to Bruce ten years later, where his father, Jesse L. Yancy, Sr. established a general store. He graduated from Bruce High School in 1944, joined the Army Air Corps in 1945 and served overseas in the Pacific. He attended the University of Mississippi School of Business and School of Law, earning his J.D. in 1951. In 1952 he married Barbara Young. They had three children.

Yancy was first elected to office in 1960 as district attorney for the Third Circuit Court District. During the Meredith Crisis at the University of Mississippi, Yancy entered the national spotlight when a Lafayette County grand jury issued an indictment against Chief United States Marshall James P. McShane, Meredith’s escort to registration at the University, for inciting a riot. While serving as D.A., Yancy became president of the Mississippi Prosecutors Association. Elected to the Senate in 1968, during his first term Yancy, as chairman of the Senate Elections Committee, guided the state’s first Open Election Law to passage. A member of the Senate Commission on Appropriations, he wrote and gained approval for the Idle Funds Bill, which authorized the investment of in place funding for the state, a key piece of legislation that has garnered Mississippi millions of much-needed dollars for over four decades.

Yancy served as an attorney for the City of Bruce for 17 years. His most influential act in that capacity came in 1961, when Bruce had outgrown its fledgling infrastructure and the city was badly in need of repairs and updates to its streets, water and sewer systems. Yancy commandeered a grant of $25,000 for the city to hire Cook Coggin, an engineering firm in Tupelo, to conduct a survey of what repairs and improvements were needed. On completion of this study, the city secured a loan of $500,000 to fund the improvements. Yancy helped Bruce to grow into a clean, attractive town, appealing both to current and potential citizens as well as businesses and industry. He was a president of the Bruce Rotary Club, the Bruce Chamber of Commerce, the Calhoun County Bar Association and a founder and commander of VFW Post 5571. He served on the Pushmataha Council of the Boy Scouts of America and taught Sunday school at the Bruce United Methodist Church.

For all his accomplishments, Jesse Yancy, Jr. is most remembered simply as a man, a friend and neighbor willing to help others. His generosity is legendary, encompassing all in his vision of community, unity, and compassion.

Daddy’s Books

My dad had a soft touch for door-to-door salesmen. I can still see him laid back on the couch in his boxers listening to some guy spell out his hard-luck story. I doubt if any of them left without an order and a couple of dollars in their pocket. We had three sets of encyclopedias and all kinds of serials put out by national publication like Time/Life or the Reader’s Digest. Our home was full of books full of words and pictures, and I spent hours poring over them when as a boy.

It wasn’t until a decade after he died that I began to explore the other books, the old faded covers and the tattered paperbacks. There I found the father I didn’t know, a man beyond my comprehension as a child, and certainly beyond mine as an old man. Still the books set a mold of time, of place, and more so of my father, the contours set by such as a raggedly paperback edition of Greek poetry in English translation in which I found the epigram of Simonides that Senator John F. Kennedy cited in his speech at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in October, 1960: “Passerby: Tell Sparta we fell faithful to her service.”

Jess Jr. had a personal connection with the Kennedys, since in his capacity as District Attorney for Lafayette County in 1962 he had to juggle the political ramifications of a grand jury indictment against James J.P. McShane, who led the federal agents who escorted James Meredith, the first African American student at University of Mississippi. The indictment was eventually revoked.

He had a copy of C.H. Cramer’s Royal Bob: The Life of Robert Ingersoll. Ingersoll, an American lawyer, Civil War veteran, political leader and orator during the Golden Age of Free Thought (roughly from 1875 to 1914), was noted for his broad range of cultural activities and his defense of agnosticism. Another book relating to Jess Jr.’s political leanings on a more local level is Kirwan’s Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics, 1876-1925, a solid nod to his political roots in the hills of north Mississippi.

One of the most puzzling yet astoundingly revealing works I found among my father’s books was Richard Brautigan’s first novel. A Confederate General from Big Sur, published in 1964. Jess Jr. was a student of the Civil War not only as a Southerner but as a politician since its ramifications were being felt with intensity in his lifetime. In Brautigan’s novel, which takes place in 1957, a man named Mellon believes he is a descendant of a Confederate general from Big Sur, California. There is no proof of his existence, although Mellon meets a drifter who has also heard of this general. Mellon seeks the truth of his own modern-day struggle in the United States in light of the Confederacy’s past struggle with the Union. I like to believe my father picked this book up on the basis of its title alone, but read it in its entirety in what was an ongoing effort to keep abreast of the mindset of the nation.

As to other fiction, he had Faulkner’s A Fable and The Town, two very divergent works; Jess Jr. knew Faulkner’s attorney Phil Stone and might have met the writer, but I feel he read Faulkner’s works more out of a desire to understand how this man from Lafayette County came to win a Nobel Prize than for any other reason. He also had a copy of Welty’s Golden Apples, which is puzzling, since of Welty’s works this is more rooted in classical mythology than any other, and my father was very much a student of reality. Like me, perhaps he was just a rube who came to read old books, and their poems and legends became a part of who he was.

In retrospect Jess Jr. could well be considered a learned man, and as such he was quite different from his peers, who included the political lights of his day as well as an across-the-board array of businessmen and dignitaries but perhaps most importantly people from every walk of life. For all that I have a handful of his books, I have little of his life, since his papers were destroyed by his law partner, who was also his brother-in-law. He will always be a puzzle to the man I am, but not to the boy I was who loved him with every fiber of my being.

Ars Voces: Euphus Ruth – The Mind’s Eye

This is a scanned copy of an 11×14″ red glass ambrotype I made at Poplar Springs Cemetery in Calhoun County in April of 2012. I had been staying in Bruce at my parent’s and decided to go up to Poplar Springs where my great-grandparents (Starling Monroe and Nancy Ruth) are buried..

When I go somewhere to photograph I sort of have something in mind but it has to feel right or speak to me for me to actually make a wet collodion photograph. I may shoot some snapshots on film or take some documentary shots of things I am recording over time but for the plates it has to be that feeling; that feeling of time and place, of past and present of connection. After walking around the cemetery for a long while, reading the gravestones and making a few snapshots with a hand-held camera I decided I would not set up the wet collodion. I got in the car to back out of the cemetery entrance for some reason instead of driving through. That is when I saw this image. It hit me: there it was the old fence I had noticed and not noticed my entire life of visiting there. I could see my relatives’ gravestones in the background but what grabbed me was the fence, the plants, the foliage: that feeling.

I pulled back in and proceeded to set up the portable darkbox, get the chemicals ready and mount the camera on the tripod. In about 30 minutes I was looking through the camera’s ground glass at this image. In another 15 minutes I was washing the chemicals from the glass and feeling good about the plate. In 2014 the cemetery caretakers in their infinite wisdom of cleaning up have totally removed the fence and cleaned the bank off, forever destroying some of the visual reminders of 50 plus years of visiting this cemetery.

Nothing lasts forever; that is one of the reasons I photograph. This plate is not for sale.

11′ X 14″ red glass ambrotype made at Poplar Springs Cemetery in the Reid Community near Bruce, Ms., (Calhoun County) in April of 2012.

Daddy at the Movies

Jess Jr. was a demonstrative soul, without reserve when it came to expression of any kind, a candor that was celebrated by most, but often trying for my mother. It was especially difficult when they went to the movies, since my father’s tastes in movies resembled those of a little old lady’s rather than a middle-aged man, a World War II vet and a veteran prosecutor in Mississippi courtrooms. She said he would hear about these movies from a slew of waitresses, secretaries, and beauticians who kept him up with the latest Hollywood gossip, and whenever they went out of town he’s drag her to first runs of such films as Peyton Place,  Madame X (his favorite courtroom scene) and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

“My God, Barbara! Can you imagine what that woman must be going through!?” he’d exclaim at the screen as Lana Turner took the stand, being (unsuccessfully) defended by her own son (whom she cannot acknowledge) for murdering a blackmailer . “Why doesn’t she say something? That judge would let her off in a heartbeat if she’d only say who she is!” Mother would never respond, just stared resolutely at the screen, avoiding the chilling glances of others in the theater. On more than one occasion, Daddy was reduced to great heaving sobs of woe, like when they had to pull Susan Kohner off Juanita Moore’s coffin at the end of Imitation of Life. Mother just kept a nest of clean handkerchiefs in her purse and passed them his way.

The only one of us who inherited this sense of cinematic drama was my sister, Cindy, who bolted out of a Memphis theater during The Snow Queen and was half-way down Union Avenue, screaming, “She’s gonna get me!” before we finally caught up with her. I knew in my heart she was feeling guilty about stealing a tube of lipstick. I saw her do it.

The Buried Boy

John Markette, 50, and John Groner, 48, who had telephoned him only a few minutes before, were waiting on the old Taylor Road, about eight miles southwest of Oxford, Mississippi, when Lafayette County Sheriff Boyce Bratton’s car skidded to a stop. It was then about 12:30 p.m., Friday, December 11, 1964, and the air was still clouded with a chilling drizzle that had continued almost without interruption since Wednesday.

They clambered up the bank alongside the road and down into a slight hollow among the trees. Sheriff Bratton saw a shovel propped against one of the trees and in an opening in the pine thicket, the mound that the two men had reported. The mound was about three and a half feet long, 16 inches wide and rose about 18 inches above ground level.

Markette and Groner had first noticed the grave on Tuesday, December 8th, three days before while hunting. About 10 a.m. Markette said they saw the mounded up, and “didn’t think too much about it.” But he told his mother, Markette said he told his mother, who was ill, about it and she thought he ought to investigate. He had trouble persuading Groner, who insisted it was likely somebody’s pet.

Markette carefully dug into the mound, eventually uncovering the body of a small boy. He was about 30 inches tall and quite thin, dressed in a knit striped shirt with long sleeves, blue jeans that were about eight inches too short-and a diaper held in place with a pin of the same size and type used to hold the pad together. When Lafayette County Coroner Sutherland arrived at the site, his preliminary examination indicated the youngster had been dead from two to six weeks. When the body was taken to the Oxford-Lafayette County Hospital, doctors said it appeared the boy had been suffering from mistreatment as well as malnutrition. His height was 30 inches and he weighed about 30 pounds. His arms and legs were pitifully thin.

Dr. Costley completed the autopsy the next day. He said the cause of death was strangulation, probably manual. He also had found that one of the legs was broken and marks on the body indicated the boy had been beaten. The body was returned to the Oxford-Lafayette Hospital where, on Monday, December 14th, extensive Xrays were taken. In addition to the broken leg that had not healed, there were old breaks-one in an arm, another of the hip—that apparently had never been treated, but had been allowed to heal of their own accord. The X-ray specialist who made the examination said the boy undoubtedly had suffered a great deal from ack of medical treatment of the several broken bones. A dental examination indicated the boy was between six and eight years old.

Then Sheriff Bratton began the tedious legwork that he believed eventually would pay off. He started at the site of the improvised burial and worked in every direction, asking about out-of-state automobiles in the area. Sheriff Bratton knew that many tourists passed through the city of Oxford, but a tourist had to be lost to go out Old Taylor Road. Only one “foreign” car-that is, one with an out-of-state license plate had been seen during this period. “What kind of car was it?” Sheriff Bratton asked eagerly. The people who had seen it agreed that it had been a white Pontiac, about a 1955 model. One man said he was pretty sure it had been a Missouri license plate. Both men agreed that the Pontiac had a man and woman and at least three children. The two men said they had no doubt it was a family group. That, in itself, was not unusual. Many family groups in out-of-state cars could be seen on the main roads-State Road 6 that ran through Oxford to Tupelo, U.S. 51 and 55 a few miles to the west and U.S. 45, to the east-but seldom did a car from the north venture out on a local road such as Highway 7. The two farmers said that was the only reason they noticed it at all.

With the chance of identification remote, the city of Oxford donated a plot in the Oxford Cemetery and the boy was buried in a casket after a brief ceremony. The simple marker at the head of the grave read simply: “Unknown Child.” But the people of Oxford and Lafayette County did not forget the boy. Almost daily, someone called Sheriff Bratton to ask permission to place flowers on the grave. During the months that followed, the grave of Unknown Child was never without decoration.

In the days that followed, the telephone tips continued to pour in. In a span of 13 months, Sheriff Bratton investigated 87 cases of missing children, only to find himself on one dead end after another. Then, about 10 o’clock in the morning of Friday, February 25, 1966, an informant who identified himself telephoned the sheriff. After he had been assured that his identity never would be revealed, he asked: “Are you still interested in a 1955 white Pontiac?” “I certainly am,” Sheriff Bratton replied. “Does it have a Missouri license plate? “Not now, but it did when this family moved here from St. Louis about January 15th.” The caller said the sheriff would find the white Pontiac parked in front of a small house the Burkes had rented in Byhalia.

The 1955 Pontiac was parked near the house, as the caller had said it would be. Betty Burke, 10, let the officers in the house where they found Inside were Mrs. Irene Burke, 37, two boys: Buddy, 7, and Junior, 11. Mrs. Burke said she knew nothing of another child. When it became apparent that she wouldn’t talk, Sheriff Bratton took the oldest boy, Junior, outside. Obviously, he was afraid to talk, but eventually said, “Mother told us if we ever told anybody about Michael, she would beat us to death.”

Reluctantly, the boy said that Mike had been wrapped in a blanket and put in a closet in their home in St. Louis. Then the family made an automobile trip to Mississippi, arriving at a lonely spot early the next morning. Michael was buried in a spot out in the woods and the family returned immediately to St. Louis. During questioning, Sheriff Bratton learned that Michael Ray Burke, who would have been seven years old on November 14, 1964, had been retarded both mentally and physically. Mrs. Burke called him a “child of the devil,” and said he caused her a lot of trouble. On November 3, 1964, Mrs. Burke said strangled him. She said this happened around 3:30 p.m., when none of the other children were present. She told her husband that she killed the baby, put him in a closet.

He went to the closet, verified that she was telling the truth. Then he went to a hardware store and bought a new shovel, while Mrs. Burke got the children dressed and ready for an automobile trip. The body was put in the trunk of the Pontiac and drove most of the night to Old Taylor Road, not far from where Edward Burke was born and reared. He dug the grave and deposited the body, and covered it with layers of dirt and rock, and portions of an old stump, sprinkling some sage over the top. The children watched. Then the family returned immediately to St. Louis.

District Attorney Jesse Yancy, who lived in Bruce, was notified and questioned the parents. Prosecutor Yancy later said the only charge that could be brought against the couple in Mississippi was a misdemeanor, since the principal crime had occurred in St. Louis. However, Yancy said he would go to St. Louis to help prosecute the couple, if Missouri law permits that and if his services were desired. But before they were taken back, they were questioned about brutalities described to Sheriff Bratton by the three liberated Burke children. Buddy, now seven, had told of his mother using a pair of wire pliers to cut off one of the toes on his left foot. He and the others told harrowing stories of beatings and mistreatments and had the scars to back up the stories,. The Burkes were returned to St. Louis early in March and were indicted for murder by the March grand jury.

The Man Who Loved Christmas

First published in the Calhoun County Journal Dec. 20, 1984, this memoir of my father, Jesse L. Yancy, Jr., was written fourteen years after his death by his friend and political partner, Sellers Gale Denley. Jess Jr., as he was called, was a remarkable man, well-loved, and still missed by many, none more so than me, his last surviving child. 

If there was ever a man who loved Christmas, it was the late Sen. Jesse Yancy of Bruce. The word “loved” is used advisedly. For there are those who might be said to “enjoy” Christmas, “respect” Christmas, “anticipate” Christmas, etc., but Jesse loved Christmas. His enthusiasm might have been regarded as extreme; except that was the way Jesse was about most things. He worked hard. Then he played hard. More than likely this approach to life was a primary cause of his untimely death on Aug. 26, 1970, at the age of 44, from a massive heart attack. Prior to assuming the senate post he served as district attorney of the third circuit court district for eight years and was city attorney in Bruce for 17 years. So it wasn’t unusual that the new city library was named in his honor.

And the way that Jesse launched the Christmas season was not particularly unique or unusual, either. It began with a big party with his friends at the Bruce community building. Funds were solicited for a live band and a case or so of assorted spirits and goodies, with a few dollars left over for another project. You see, Jesse had a secret Christmas vice. He liked to dress up in a funny red suit, hide his face behind a mask of white whiskers and, on Christmas Eve, visit the area in South Bruce where most black citizens lived.

Before each of these visits his automobile was filled with candy, nuts, fruit, toys and firecrackers. In the early 1960s it was all the Christmas some of the children had. The ritual started in the ’50s when he dressed up to play Santa for his own children. His family decided he should also go see the children of the black woman who worked for them. His appearance was an immediate hit. It was the Christmas of 1960, when I started helping him with the project, that he said he realized back then on his first trip that most of the black children had never really seen Santa Claus. So it became an annual event, growing in scope each year, to make the Christmas Eve appearance. The addition of toys and other goodies was a part of the evolution. The project was financed with any excess funds from the party, plus contributions from several of us who usually helped, with Jesse taking up the slack. It started each year with several trips to area wholesalers to purchase the large volume of goodies needed for some 250 to 350 children.

The bounty would be hauled in and the Yancy children—Cindy, Tom and Lee, often assisted by cousins Bill and Bob Cooper—and others would assemble individual sacks. Then, on Christmas Eve, Jesse would put on his Santa suit, we would load up a vehicle or two—the most memorable and utilitarian being a dark green Mustang convertible— and begin the appointed rounds. There must have been a lookout, for as soon as the first vehicle crossed the railroad tracks, which marked the boundary of the black community, several young boys would take over the lead position. With wide-eyed excitement they would precede the caravan down Murphree Street shouting: “Here he comes. Here comes Santa. Here he comes.” And for the next hour or so Jesse would be in his Christmas glory.

He handed out presents to those close by while keeping an eye out for those too shy to come up to him, so he could seek them out later. He knew quite a few of them by name. And almost all of the parents knew Jesse and whispered their thanks. But if the children knew him they didn’t let on. And neither did they let on if they sometimes got a whiff of the Old Charter Santa and his helpers found useful in warding off the cold and other miseries.

The custom died with Jesse. The party lasted another year or two, and some of us talked about continuing the Santa Claus visit. But, we rationalized, it was 1970 and the children were being encouraged to visit Santa on the Square, sponsored by the city as a part of the Lion’s Club Christmas parade. So we didn’t.  It has been 35 years, but every Christmas about this time I begin to get a little bit anxious. Like you feel when you know there is something you probably need to do. Like you feel when you know there is something you probably will never get to do again. It has been suggested that one can sometimes recapture the spirit of Christmases-past by recording remembrances like these. I am confident that Jesse would overlook my indiscretion in writing about it now.

Jesse Yancy, Jr. (left) with his brother-in-law, Jim Young, as Santa.

Winter Squash

My father was a lawyer during the 50s and 60s in a rural county in north Mississippi. Money was never plentiful, but we had what we needed: we never had to buy firewood, we always had a freezer full of meat wrapped in white butcher paper, and a cupboard stocked with some of the best home-canned foods in the South. Around Christmas Dad would go to the door at night and return with bottles tightly wrapped in paper sacks, holiday happies from secret friends in that dry county.

In Octobers, when it was still hot and dry, Dad would drive my sister, brother and me to the Ellard community where an old man and his wife lived on a small farm. Across the road from their house the slope of a hill was covered with yellowing vines bearing winter squashes. We’d gather all we could carry, which wasn’t much, while Daddy sat on the porch with them with a glass of sweet tea and talked.

Once after we left, I asked him why he didn’t pay the man. “Son, they wouldn’t take my money,” he said. “Years back, their boy got into trouble, a lot of trouble. I did everything I could to keep him out of prison. But I couldn’t, and they understood. I never asked them for a penny. I knew they didn’t have it. But he’d feel bad if I didn’t come out and get these squash. It’s his gift, and you don’t turn down gifts from a man who doesn’t have much to give. It means more to me–-and him–-than anything anybody else would give me.”

The squash were acorns and yellow Hubbards. Some were peeled, cubed and parboiled for a casserole or pie. Others were split, seeded, usually scored, brushed with melted butter mixed with orange juice, sprinkled with brown sugar, and baked in a hot oven until soft and slightly browned. Once on the table, we’d scoop out the flesh with a spoon, put it on our plates and mash it with a fork. While the more durable sweet potatoes were on our table throughout the year, winter squash are seasonal. When I see them in the store, I know winter is coming, and my mind goes back to a that dry autumn hillside at an old failing farm in north Mississippi.

Daddy at the Door

My father Jess Jr. was very much a man of the moment; charismatic, spontaneous and imbued with a zest for living. Naturally, being married to such a man made my mother Barbara very happy, but it also kept her in a state of continual apprehension as to what mischief might spring into his mind at any given time.

She often told us the story of being invited to a party in Oxford at a grand home on South Lamar. Barbara was understandably nervous, not knowing the hosts, but Jess had taken great pains to assure her that as district attorney he worked with the judge and knew him well. Once they had passed under the ancient trees to the spacious porch and rang the doorbell, Jess turned to Barbara, winked, and said, “Watch this.”

“My heart just sank to my shoes,” she’d say. When the door opened, Jess walked in, raised his arms in the air, and said, “I hope you people know that we are trying to have a prayer meeting in the house down the street, and your drunken carryings-on here are disrupting our communion with the Lord God Almighty!”

This being during the time before Prohibition was lifted in Mississippi, the assembly of well-heeled Oxonians and distinguished Ole Miss academics froze. Mother said the silence was so vast you could hear traffic on the Square four blocks away, and she was about to faint when the host stuck his head out the kitchen door and said, “Jess, quit scaring the hell out of everybody, get a drink and Barbara one, too. God knows she needs it.”

“I miss him so much,” she’d say.

 

Charley Pride’s Baked Beans

My father Jess Jr. was one of the first politicians in north Mississippi who took an active and positive role in civil rights. As district attorney he refused County to sign a subpoena issued by a local grand jury for “disturbing the civil peace”  on the federal officers who guarded James Meredith  at Ole Miss October 1962. He took everyone, irregardless of race or religion, into his care, and that memory still echoes among many across Mississippi.

He also loved country music. He was raised on the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and Roy Acuff; by the time I was ten, I knew damn near every one of Hank William’s songs by heart, and plenty of Loretta and Ernest as well. He also came to like a young singer named “Country Charley Pride” after hearing Pride’s first release in January 1966, “The Snakes Crawl at Night”.

Country music in the mid-1960s was–and largely still is–very much a white venue, so when my mother bought him an 8-track tape of Charley’s songs for him to listen to while he roared around in his new Mustang, she replaced the cover with one she made herself, something he wouldn’t look to hard at, a picture of a cowboy hat or something. Then there came a day when they were driving somewhere or the other, and Daddy was singing along with Charley, and Momma  turned to him after the song was over and said, “Jess, did you know he’s black?” He snorted and said, “Oh, Barbara, don’t be silly. He’s a country boy from over in Quitman County.” Then she showed him the original label on the tape. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said. Soon after that, Charley made headline by being the first black entertainer on the Grand Ole Opry since DeFord Bailey in 1941, and of course, Jess Jr. told everybody he had been listening to him for years.

Here’s Charley’s’s recipe for Sweet and Sour Baked Beans, which he probably got from a roadie. I found this recipe in Mississippi’s VIP Recipes. This cookbook was published by Phillips Printing in the Jackson area to support a local school; there’s no date and no mention of the school’s name, but the other 42 contributors include John Grisham, Faith Hill, Archie Manning, Walter Peyton, Jimmy Buffet and Mary Ann Mobley. It’s nice to know our people help one another out even when they’re not at home.

Charlie Pride’s Sweet and Sour Baked Beans

8 bacon slices, pan fried until crisp, drained and crumbled
4 large onions, peeled and cut in rings
½ to one cup brown sugar (more if you like beans on the sweet side)
1 teaspoon dried mustard
½ teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
1 teaspoons salt
½ cup cider vinegar
1 one pound can green lima beans, drained
1 one pound can dark red kidney beans, drained
1 one pound can New England-style baked beans, undrained

Place onions in skillet. Add sugar, mustard, garlic powder and vinegar. Cook 20 minutes, uncovered. Add onion mixture to beans. Add crumbled bacon. Pour into 3-quart casserole. Bake in moderate over at 350 for one hour. Makes 12 servings.